Scotland, Be Brave and Go It Alone
The elite consensus -- outside Scotland, I mean -- is impressively solid. It says that the Scots will be making a big mistake if, in tomorrow's referendum, they vote to leave the U.K. I beg to differ. It's a close call, but my advice to Scots is to vote for independence.
This isn't because I'm convinced by the independence campaign. Actually, as I've previously explained, I'm disgusted by it. Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, and others in the Yes campaign have made their case dishonestly. Far from giving Scotland a fiscal windfall, independence is likely to impose an additional fiscal burden. The transitional costs of separating from the U.K. could be large. The promise to keep sterling is insane. And aside from all that, independence is a risk for a small country that's heavily dependent on a single resource: oil.
So if voters choose divorce because they believe what Salmond has told them, a lot of them will be in for a shock. For a while, they might well regret what they've done. The safe choice is to vote no. Nonetheless, I recommend divorce. Scotland will get over the shock and be glad, in the end, to be unhitched.
It comes down to this: Scots are bound more tightly to each other -- by history, culture and ethnicity -- than they are to the rest of the U.K. In this sense, Scotland is, and for centuries has been, another country. Its desire for full nationhood has waxed and waned, but it certainly isn't new. The union is hundreds of years old, but the things that make Scotland different haven't been smoothed away, which tells you something.
What has changed in recent decades is that the U.K. has become both less hospitable to the Scots and less necessary.
The U.K. is centralized to an unusual degree, and ever more so. London and its surroundings continue to increase their cultural and economic dominance, and the Scots are right to feel marginalized. Seeming to push against this was the devolution of government, notably through the Scotland Act of 1998, which set up a Scottish parliament with limited powers. This was a mostly sincere effort to meet the Scottish demand for self-rule, but in a subtle way, it served to underline the disparity in status.
Devolution grafted special arrangements for Scotland onto an essentially unchanged settlement in England -- even at the cost of glaring constitutional anomalies (Scottish members of the Westminster parliament continued to vote on English matters; English members of Parliament don't vote in Scotland). You might think this was a nice deal for Scotland -- and it was generous enough, at any rate, to cause resentment in England. But there's another way of reading it (you have to imagine it in an English accent): "You can have more self-rule, but only if it has no implications for us. That's how little you matter."
More devolution of this kind is again on offer if Scotland votes against independence. Depending on the details, it would go some way toward meeting the Scottish desire for self-government, but it won't meet the Scottish demand to be respected as a nation. Moreover, to the extent that Scotland makes a success of its devolved political powers, it would demonstrate that it can, in fact, rule itself. Devolution was supposed to satisfy the appetite for self-determination; in fact, it made Scotland hungry for more.
The world has changed, too. Scots made a conspicuously disproportionate contribution to the running of the British empire. In the wars of the 20th century, they were full partners with the rest of the U.K. in fighting for Britain and celebrated as such. That unifying sense of grand British purpose, defined by colonial prerogatives and obligations, as well as by existential threats (first Germany, then Germany again, then the Soviet Union), has gone.
The world is by no means a safe place, but -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Islamic State notwithstanding -- it's safer than before. Today the European Union offers small nations equal standing in a peaceful new regional order, with guaranteed access to each other's markets and a promise of mutual support. Small EU countries, even those on Russia's borders, feel no need to be absorbed by a condescending protector. If Ireland can succeed as a modern European nation and never regret its independence, why not Scotland?
There are short-term risks and costs, to be sure. And for the rest of the U.K., the divorce would be a lasting injury -- to its prestige, above all. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers would look ridiculous and might never be forgiven, going down in history not as the government that freed Scotland but as one that lost it through sheer indolence. This sudden prospect of humiliation, which animates much of the pro-union commentary, is an important factor: It adds to the danger of a divorce that's bitter and needlessly painful for both parties.
A friendly separation is possible, though -- and in the longer term, for the best. My guess is that Scotland will, after all, vote against independence tomorrow, cowed by the risks and uncertainties and by the sudden force of international opinion telling them to think again. If so, it will be a shame. A Scotland that stays in the union reluctantly will be of little use to itself or anybody else. Alongside childish simplicity on fiscal and monetary policy, peevish resentment of the English has been a persistent aspect of the independence campaign. The cure for both is to grow up and move on.
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